An unexpected flurry of email arrived like a cool front from the Hill Country in response to my early November column, San Antonio International Airport is the City’s Achilles Heel.
Readers, elected officials, business owners, and travelers who have to choose between flying out of San Antonio or Austin wanted to tell me a few things:
One, I neglected to note the nonstop seasonal service from Austin-Bergstrom to Frankfurt, Germany on Condor Airlines that began on June 27 this year. Guilty as charged: I didn’t even know there was an airline named Condor.
Austin now offers nonstop service to London, Frankfurt, Toronto, and various cities in Mexico. San Antonio’s only international destinations are to Mexican cities.
“Many Hill Country residents of German heritage with family and friends in the Old Country can now fly to Germany in 10 hours instead of making connections through other cities and spending twice as much time and money getting there with layovers and extra costs,” said one frugal Fredericksburg resident.
Two, many Hill Country residents say they feel a closer bond to San Antonio than Austin, but can’t ignore the greater choice of flights or the lower costs. I received multiple emails from residents in Kerrville, Comfort, and Boerne making points one and two.
“Regarding your article on the San Antonio Airport, important to also note that thousands of fairly affluent travelers from Fredericksburg and certain parts of the Texas Hill Country have the option of which airport to choose – SA or Austin – pretty much the same distance,” wrote Ernie Loeffler, the president and CEO of the Fredericksburg Convention & Visitor Bureau. “If they are looking for non-stop service, you are right: Austin often now wins. Bergstrom now has seasonal nonstop flights to Frankfurt, which is important for German-Texan residents in Central Texas who visit Germany frequently.”
The Hill Country to Europe traffic isn’t limited to family visits.
“The British Airways nonstop to London Heathrow is hugely important to Fredericksburg’s international tourism promotion efforts in Europe,” Loeffler added. “I have a staff person who is attending World Travel Market in London this week and will be talking about that route as the best way to visit Fredericksburg and the Texas Hill Country.”
With the Euro currency only five cents ahead of the U.S. dollar, travel to Europe is looking more affordable now than it has been in many years.
Mayor Ivy Taylor and Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff announced plans to form a task force to study the San Antonio airport’s deficit and its negative effects on the city’s profile nationally and internationally. The task force will follow in the footsteps of the Air Service Development Task Force formed by the City and the San Antonio Chamber of Commerce and apparently now discontinued.
New nonstop flights to various domestic destinations, including Los Angeles, Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Orlando, New Orleans, and Las Vegas were added, but since then, a nonstop flight to Philadelphia has been discontinued, as have flights to Mexico City and Cancún.
“The issue of the airport keeps coming up as far as the city’s competitiveness and meeting needs of the one million people who are going to come here (in the next 25 years),” Taylor told the Rivard Report two weeks ago. “We need to get folks in the room to think strategically to determine whether or not we need a new airport, changes to our existing airport, partnerships with other communities, or other innovative models.”
Three (if you are still counting), one Boerne official wrote to point out that while Taylor’s SA Tomorrow plan documents the anticipated population growth of one million more people in San Antonio by 2040, the Multimodal Transportation Plan makes no provisions for expanded airline service or any mass transit plan connecting the city to the airport.
Noting that much of that population growth will occur along I-10 West, the official wrote, “Forget about I-35 and building a new airport in Austin, which isn’t going to happen. Why not build it near Boerne where everyone is moving, anyway?”
Various San Antonio leaders have lamented the “lost opportunity” of joining with Austin in the 1990s to build a new international airport serving both cities and the region. Austin officials are implementing an ambitious $2 billion expansion plan at Austin-Bergstrom that includes the construction of nine new gates in anticipation of 15 million passengers annually by 2025, the same year San Antonio expects to have grown by 1 million more people.
Yet the difference in the way leaders of the two cities are thinking is evidenced on the one hand by Austin’s long-term aviation plan and the recently announced planned departure of San Antonio’s Interim Aviation Director Thomas Jones, who has been on the job for less than one year. Jones told a reporter that his most notable accomplishment as interim director was accelerating the planned finish date for a the airport’s rental car facility.
Jones can’t be faulted for the failure to win more nonstop domestic and international flights, but San Antonio does lack visionary aviation expertise and leadership. It will take a major change in mindset among local officials and business leaders to move from increment thinking to more ambitious long-term strategies. It’s easier, of course, to sell taxpayers on incremental change than it is to win buy-in for a long-term vision, but the cities that think and act long-term are the cities that are thriving.
Taylor, to her credit, said the new task force will consider all options, including the feasibility of a new airport. Some will point to South Texas and, by inference, to Mexico as the logical location. While population growth might favor that conclusion, I believe it would be wrong. Economic development and wealth creation is occurring at a faster rate in the other three directions around San Antonio. As Austin’s elevated airport traffic shows, it’s the size of a city’s economy rather than its population that determines how many people have business reasons or the personal income to travel.
As for Mexico? This city’s ever-growing population of wealthy Mexican nationals live in the city’s north and northwest sectors, not so far from our near-Hill Country neighbors.